Forest fire diplomacy may help improve Turkish-Israeli ties

Every tragedy brings its own set of challenges as well as opportunities to exploit, so that further damage might be contained if one learns one’s lessons and makes the necessary adjustments. The extension of tragedy into diplomacy often brings a windfall of goodwill under which a more constructive dialogue can be achieved.

This is what had happened in 1999 when a major earthquake devastated the western part of Turkey, and Greece — then the arch-enemy of Turkey — offered its help to grieving Turkey, setting into motion what was called “earthquake diplomacy,” which improved ties between the neighbors dramatically. A minor quake in Greece later that year further brought the two countries closer when Turkey reciprocated the help from Athens.

Sometimes the event that provides an opening for talks does not even need to be a tragedy, as we saw in the case of the football diplomacy between Turkey and Armenia, when the presidents of the two countries visited each other to watch football matches, paving the way for the rapprochement between the two countries.

On Thursday, Turkey offered to send Israel two firefighting aircraft to help control a huge brushfire that has been raging through northern Israel after Israel made an international plea to help contain the fire. Though the bilateral relations between the two countries took a sharp dive after the flotilla incident in May that resulted in the deaths of eight Turks and one Turkish-American by Israeli commandos and worsened after Israel’s refusal to apologize and compensate victims’ families, Turkish assistance in fighting the fire may prove to be a valuable asset in mending ties.

There was simply no room to maneuver after the two countries locked themselves in a corner: Israel refusing to give in to the demands of Turkey and Turkey insisting on Israel paying the price for the attacks on Turkish citizens in open waters. The forest tragedy that has claimed the lives of at least 40 Israeli citizens may nevertheless provide an opening for Turkey improve sour relations with Israel.

The Israeli side should capitalize on this and build enough momentum of goodwill to finally move the situation into “damage control” mode. After all, the ensuing disagreement between the two key countries in the Middle East is hampering efforts to reconcile differences in the greater region. Israel needs Turkey’s help to smooth out relations with Syria and solve the Golan Heights problem in order to ensure security on the northern front. The indirect proximity talks with Syria, brokered by Turkey until the Cast Lead operation, may need to be revitalized again.

Everything remains at a standstill when communication between Turkey and Israel is cut off and their high-ranking officials simply do not converse with each other. It will further erode the trust and confidence between the two countries when third parties or other developments insert themselves into the equation. The prime example is the latest Wikileaks releases, which many politicians in Turkey, including Cabinet ministers, blame Tel Aviv for. If we had better relations with Israel, these politicians and ministers would avoid making such comments to the media.

A case in point was President Abdullah Gül’s exchange in Astana with his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, who was reported to have voiced remarks critical of the current Turkish government in US diplomatic cables released recently by WikiLeaks, a whistleblower website. Aliyev denied the report during their meeting and expressed his dismay over the cables presenting him as being critical of Erdoğan. The Turkish president said he did not believe in remarks allegedly voiced by Aliyev, either. That was the end of the story.

Unfortunately there has been no high level exchange between Turkish and Israeli officials for some time now. In fact Turkey deliberately made an effort to avoid contacts with Israeli officials after the latter refused to apologize over the flotilla incident. Be that as it may, the lack of exchange is hurting both countries, providing an opportunity for others to exploit the vacuum. I just hope that the goodwill generated by the forest fire assistance may extend to the core of diplomacy as well, and we can leave the flotilla incident behind us.

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